Writing By Example

Isabel Haller-Gryc recommends using mentor texts to scaffold writing for English learners

Writing is a struggle for many people, but it is especially difficult for English language learners (ELLs). ELLs face many challenges when writing, ranging from unfamiliarity with text structure to difficulty with grammar usage, word order, sentence structure, and syntax (Haynes). How can educators help this ever-growing population of emerging writers? One solution is to use mentor texts. According to Stacey Shubitz, author of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts, mentor texts are any pieces of exemplary writing that one can study during writing workshop to teach students how to write well. Children’s author Ralph Fletcher comments on how other authors’ works have influenced his writing in his book Mentor Author, Mentor Texts.

He writes, “Powerful writing seems to contain a magical essence, one we hope might somehow rub off on us” (3). In her April 2014 Educational Leadership article “Making the Most of Mentor Texts,” Kelly Gallagher points out that we often learn to do something unfamiliar by watching someone carefully, analyzing what they do, and ultimately copying their actions. Writing in another language is definitely “unfamiliar,” and what better way to help students master this task than to use high-quality examples—mentor texts?

To effectively use mentor texts in writing instruction, students must first be guided through the process of reading texts like writers. That is, they must be taught how to analyze writing for the qualities that they would like to implement. Analysis should focus on either the text organization and the features associated with it or on craft—the author’s style and use of literary techniques. It is only after students are aware of what mentor authors do that they can emulate them and incorporate the observed structure or craft in their writing.

When focusing on a specific organizational structure, during an initial lesson, consider instructing students to look carefully for the specific language of that structure, and encourage them to explain why they think that sample is evidence of the identified pattern. For example, when I start a unit on opinion writing, I use a simple graphic organizer (see Figure 1) to help students identify the opinions in a text. Consider doing something like this: Use a two-column chart with the heading “Examples of Opinion Writing” to record students’ analysis of multiple opinion pieces. I often use Amazon reviews or articles like “Guy Gear” from Boys’ Life as sample texts. In the first column, which is entitled “Examples of opinion writing,” students list actual examples of text that they feel are opinions. The opposite column, which is labeled “I know it’s opinion writing because…,” is where the students explain why their chosen examples meet the requirements for being opinion writing.

The goal is for students to be able to identify the features of opinions, because students must first understand what a specific structure looks like before they can attempt to compose it. Similar activities can be done with informational and narrative writing, as these texts all contain specific identifiable features.

When looking at craft, consider finding multiple texts that model the target technique, and have students again record their analyses. There are several different ways to chart authors’ craft. Author Lester Laminack includes a chart in his book Cracking Open the Author’s Craft: Teaching the Art of Writing that poses several questions to help elicit discussion about what an author is doing and why. Laminack’s chart could be useful to keep track of multiple techniques that one author is using, but I like to have students record the reverse—multiple authors using the same craft (see Figure 2).

The chart I use with students allows them to name the technique being studied and has two columns that analyze multiple texts/authors that showcase the same craft. The first column, labeled “Examples of this technique,” is used to record the title of the mentor text that demonstrates the desired element, and the second column, titled “How does the author employ this technique?”, is used to describe what the author does to implement the studied feature. To illustrate this process, let us look at how to utilize this chart during a narrative unit. When teaching narrative writing, it is often a common focus to teach students how to “zoom in” on a small moment. There are several books that exemplify this feature. Books like Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee, which takes the reader through the entire roller-coaster riding process, and Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe, which lets the reader follow a little boy through his excitement of catching fireflies and realization that he must set them free, are great stories to use to discuss how the author zooms in on a moment rather than merely writing a long list-like story.

To record this, list the titles of these texts and any others that model small moments under the first column, “Examples of this technique,” and then in the second column, “How does the author employ this technique?”, encourage students to explain how the author employs that technique. For example, with Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee, it can be recorded how each page takes the reader through the stages of riding a roller coaster (waiting in line, seeing the carts arrive, getting nervous and wanting to leave, buckling in, and actually riding the coaster). The goal of this process is for students to see multiple examples of a literary aspect that they could try out in their future pieces.

Now, with the shift to the Common Core standards, educators are faced with the task of preparing all students to write on a more advanced level. Students are expected to compose arguments and opinions, informative/explanatory pieces, and narrative texts and to focus on the use of evidence to substantiate their claims. ELLs already struggle with writing, and to ensure that they can employ desired features in their writing, teachers will need to make instructional shifts like using exemplar writing so that all students and especially ELLs can effectively meet the level of complexity required by the Common Core standards. A good writing program should use good literature, and using mentor texts to give ELLs insights into the art of writing and careful analysis can not only help in identifying what good writing looks like and sounds like but also aid in the implementation of specific writing skills.


Fletcher, R. J. (2011). Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts, Craft Notes, and Practical Classroom Uses. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gallagher, K. (April 2014). “Making the Most of Mentor Texts.” Educational Leadership 71(7), 28–33. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr14/vol71/num07/Making-the-Most-of-Mentor-Texts.aspx.

Haynes, J. (n.d.). “Challenges for ELLs in Content Area Learning.” Retrieved May 31, 2017, from http://www.everythingesl.net/inservices/challenges_ells_content_area_l_65322.php.

Laminack, L. (2016). Cracking Open the Author’s Craft: Teaching the Art of Writing (revised). Scholastic.

Shubitz, S. (2016). Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Isabel Haller-Gryc has over 17 years of experience in the field of ESL. She is nationally board certified in English as a new language and works as a K–8 ESL instructional coach for the Pullman School District and as an adjunct instructor for Washington State University, both in Pullman, WA.


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